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The Moral Pitfalls of Foreign Policy Weakness

It is not very astonishing how quickly both the fight against the self-styled Islamic State and the refugee crisis, connected as they are, have turned into textbook cases of realpolitik. French President François Hollande seeks to build an alliance with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to fight the Islamist group. Hollande even deems Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a possible ally in this standoff writes Jan Techau.

At the same time, in a different arena, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under existential political pressure back home, goes down on her knees to win Turkey’s support in the refugee crisis. So too does the entire EU, with the recently endorsed EU-Turkey refugee action plan, conceived in the fear of further uncontrolled migration.

Techau is the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.

Not long ago, Assad was the West’s evil nemesis no. 1, with Putin a close second. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was regarded as an erratic, despotic loony too embarrassing to be seen with. Now, European leaders across the political spectrum are doing exactly what leaders always do when problems are big, resources are scarce, and only bad options remain: they deviate from the path of moral purity to get a grip on a practical issue that is more urgent than ethical cleanliness. Interests have topped values again in EU foreign policy. Or have they?
Criticism of European and Western kowtowing to less-than-immaculate interlocutors is fierce. Pundit after pundit warns that Europe must not sell out its values when forging alliances with Putin and Erdoğan, the Saudis, the generals in Egypt, the mullahs in Tehran, or the Communist Party leaders in Beijing.

These warnings are understandable, for two very good reasons. First, Western politicians are not only hired by their voters as managers of tricky practical problems but also act as high priests whose task is to represent what’s good and great about the tribe and to keep its moral narrative intact. Second, succumbing too quickly to cooperating with the dark side is problematic: aside from being unpleasant, it can backfire and produce quick fixes that come back to haunt you. Realpolitik is often necessary, but it is also very risky.

Be that as it may, in the end physical survival tops moral considerations, as always in the face of clear and present danger. The task of a responsible leader is to be pragmatic to the point where it hurts—and beyond, if necessary.

The real problem here is not European moral bankruptcy. The real problem is a political, economic, and military weakness that breeds a necessity to make compromises that are bigger and come more quickly than they have to. It is a weakness that drives leaders into policies and alliances that are morally questionable. It is a weakness that makes values dispensable.

Europe’s current realpolitik is a cautionary tale about what happens when states systematically undermine their own power base by not reforming economically, by disarming unilaterally, by not adapting their institutions. A leader who thinks that morals can prevail without muscle has already lost both.

What’s so annoying about the cheap warnings of Western moral sellouts is that often they come from the very people who also argued fervently against the strengthening of the West. These critics were against structural reform of ailing economies, because that was capitalist brutality. They were against a more integrated Europe, because that was undemocratic lunacy. They were against beefing up defense spending, because that was militarist saber rattling. They were against a proper EU immigration policy, because that would be too harsh on migrants (feared by the Left) or because it would open the floodgates for more foreigners to swamp Europe (feared by the Right). They were against TTIP, the proposed transatlantic trade alliance, because that was capitalist neocolonialism designed to cement global inequality.

Most of those who, often on moral grounds, argued against the very policies that could have strengthened Western positions vis-à-vis the brutes of this world are now quick to remind observers that moral sellouts would be a disgrace. But it is muscle that makes morals affordable in a world that punishes weakness. He who works actively to weaken that muscle is also the grave digger of values in foreign policy.

But strength is not just about economic vibrancy, functioning institutions, and military capabilities. Strength is also about conceptual firepower. And this is where the critics of the moral sellout are right. It would be nice if the West had more muscle so it could rely less on alliances with funny-smelling partners. It would be even nicer if the West had an idea of what it wanted to accomplish in foreign policy. Strength needs to be guided by ideas, based on proper analysis.

What is it that the West wants to achieve in the Middle East—or in Eastern Europe? What kind of world does the West want in Africa or Central Asia? What resources would the West have to assign to make those goals a reality? Who are the West’s partners? And what homework does the West have to do to get its foreign policy right?

The truth is that the West, in its current constellation, has no strategy, and it has no tactics either. Putin and Erdoğan and Assad might not have much of a strategy themselves (even though that can be vividly argued), but they certainly outsmart the West on tactics anytime. Not because they are cleverer but because they know what they want and they have their priorities established.

“The West’s problem in Syria is that it wants everybody else to lose,” says Rupert Smith, a retired British general and author of the neo-Clausewitzian classic The Utility of Force. But when you want the Islamic State, Russia, Iran, Assad, Erdoğan, and Saudi Arabia all to lose at the same time in a theater where they are all stronger than you are, you might occupy the moral high ground. But you’re also strategically confused.

Something’s got to give. Moral compromise is unavoidable. The stronger you are, the smaller the compromise will be.

Jan Techau is a director of Carnegie Europe. This article was first published by Carnegie Europe. See more at 

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